Angry about cuts to Newport Libraries

Catherine Finch recently contacted me about cuts to the library service in my home town of Newport in South Wales.  I remember using the Central Library there as a child. There was little to recommend the town apart from the library at the time.  I include this article here to stand for the many hundreds, thousands, or angry and disappointed library users who are looking on while their services are being destroyed. April, 2016.

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Why I’m angry about library closures in Newport

Why did Newport press ahead and close two well used libraries near the city centre and why did they drastically reduce the Central Library?  The obvious answer is to save money, but at what cost to the community? 

Libraries are shutting down at an unprecedented rate everywhere in the UK.  In Wales, local authorities have been closing or reducing library services in a bid to save money.  A recent report in the BBC showed that library jobs in Wales have been reduced from “1,241 jobs in 2010 to 979 today, a fall of 21%”. However, the National Assembly of Wales report into public libraries disclosed that in some councils (including Newport), expenditure on libraries only accounted for less than 1% of its annual budget. The Welsh Government (which has recently invested £2.3million into libraries and museums), recommended that any future cuts to service would be unlikely to save councils money in the long term.

This is why I’m so angered by the council decision to close Maindee and Carnegie Libraries.  The short-term savings made was at the expense of an already deprived area.   Maindee as a council-run library closed last autumn.  I used it regularly when both my children were babies.  On each visit, there were always people reading or using the PCs & internet. The children’s section in particular was well stocked and spacious with regular story time activities. It was greatly valued, particularly by isolated elderly and disabled, for whom a trip into town is like venturing into the Artic – difficult beyond belief even with public transport.

“Can you still call it an ‘efficient’ and ‘comprehensive’ library service as defined by the 1964 Public Libraries Act?”

What is Maindee like now it’s been ‘saved’ by volunteers?  They seem to have continued many of the services & events that were run when the library was managed by NCC.   It has a café, free wi-fi and access to the loo.  But does it empower people and help them to further their knowledge and learning? Can you still call it an ‘efficient’ and ‘comprehensive’ library service as defined by the 1964 Public Libraries Act? Not really – it’s more of a community hub with limited open hours.  It has lots of tables and books, but at the time of my visit (in February 2016), there was one old looking laptop and printer, mostly donated stock, no newspapers, no magazines and the children’s section was reduced and moved to the back of the library.

More fundamentally, there is no library management system and professional staff to run it.  The books in Maindee Library are separate from NCC: to issue them out, card indexes are used and this is something I haven’t seen in a functioning library since the early 1990s. So now you know that although the building has been ‘saved’ (via community asset transfer), the library service is reduced and hollowed out.

“The final report made it clear there would be no positive impact by closing any of the libraries. “

Newport City Council closed Maindee and Carnegie after the Libraries Transformation Project last year.  The consultation looked at the libraries, the areas they served and how closures would affect the community. The final report made it clear there would be no positive impact by closing any of the libraries.  It would do nothing to combat inequality, improve social cohesion and life chances of children and young people in the area.  And access to library services would be more difficult for the vulnerable and disabled.  But in response to this, the same solution was repeated over and over again: make use of the regular buses running into the town centre.  Now with two libraries gone from Newport East, it seems that the central library is expected to serve this community instead.  Yet nine full time library jobs went, the reference library closed and the remaining collection was moved to a much smaller space on the second floor.   The lovely children’s collection has been moved to the back, out of sight and out of mind.

Initially, it was proposed that Newport Central Library should be closed: that there shouldn’t be a city centre library at all.  The building is poorly built and needs constant maintenance. However, the idea was met with such resistance from the local community that the council backed down and closed Carnegie instead. The council recently borrowed £90 million to build the new Friar Walk shopping centre. Contrast that with the £1/4 million saving they’ll make on closing libraries, the ‘big white elephant in the room’ question is why a major refurbishment or new library was not factored into the new shopping centre plans? Then I found out (from John Griffiths, my local Welsh Assembly Member) that the interest from the £90 million loan of the new Friar Walk shopping centre will be given back to the council to spend on the community.  With a creaking Central Library serving an increasing central population, it’s obvious to me where the money should go.

Not everyone can afford to shop, not everyone wants to shop.  But most people will need libraries at some point in their lives.    Despite a general decline in use, millions of people still use them for a range of reasons: from borrowing books, using PCs (23% population still don’t have internet access at home) to researching family or local history, homework and research.  They are still an important and valuable asset to any community, rural or urban.  A thriving city centre usually has a thriving library (Cardiff, Swansea, Norwich and Birmingham to name a few).

“Councillor Mark Whitcutt described libraries as ‘extremely important’, but his words ring hollow  when the decision was made to cut two valuable library services that people in the area used and loved”

Councillor Mark Whitcutt described libraries as ‘extremely important’, but his words ring hollow  when the decision was made to cut two valuable library services that people in the area used and loved.  The fact that the community felt strongly enough about their library and succeeded in finding 50 volunteers to step in and run it, shows how valued Maindee Library is.

I am following the sit-in protest in Lambeth’s Carnegie Library with interest.  These libraries were closed on 31st March with the council intending to turn them into fee-paying gyms cohabiting with a self-service library despite objections from local residents.  A hundred years ago, these libraries were built to provide poorer people with access to books and information to help them learn and participate in society.  And now the council is threatening to take away the very thing that helps them to do that.

The Lambeth protesters are determined to challenge the council and I hope they succeed.  They are not just fighting for libraries; they are fighting for social wellbeing and community cohesion, for democracy, for lifelong learning and the right to a public service that benefits everyone.

“The Lambeth protesters are determined to challenge the council and I hope they succeed.  They are not just fighting for libraries; they are fighting for social wellbeing and community cohesion, for democracy, for lifelong learning and the right to a public service that benefits everyone.”

Further reading

Newport City Council documents

Newport City Council (2015) Decision details: Library Transformation Project https://democracy.newport.gov.uk/ieDecisionDetails.aspx?AIId=597 with link to the full report in PDF

Welsh Government documents

Newport City Council, Annual Assessment Report 2014-2015: Welsh Public Library Standards 2014-17 –http://gov.wales/docs/drah/publications/151028-wpls-report-newport-en.pdf. Reports of service decline and general low expenditure on libraries compared with the rest of Wales.

Welsh Government (2014) Libraries making a difference: the fifth quality framework of Welsh Public Library Standards 2014-2017.  Link is no longer available.

Welsh public libraries review (30 March 2016) http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/public-libraries-review/?lang=en

Welsh Government (31 March 2016) £2.3million for libraries, museums and archives in Wales, http://gov.wales/newsroom/cultureandsport/2016/160331-libraries-museums-archives/?lang=en

Welsh Government (2012) Libraries Inspire: the strategic development framework for Welsh libraries 2012-2016 http://gov.wales/topics/cultureandsport/museums-archives-libraries/libraries/libraries-inspire/?lang=en

National Assembly for Wales (July 2014) Public libraries in Wales, http://www.assembly.wales/Laid%20Documents/CR-LD9868%20Report%20by%20the%20Communities,%20Equality%20and%20Local%20Government%20Committee%20on%20public%20libraries%20in%20Wales/CR-LD9868-e.pdf

In the media

BBC News (29 March 2016) Libraries lose a quarter staff as hundreds close http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956

Siencyn, Lleucu (31 Jan 2015) We shouldn’t close the book on the value of libraries, Wales Online, http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/keep-welsh-libraries-open-says-8538756

Gillet, Francesa (9 June 2015) Maindee and Carnegie libraries to close, South Wales Argus, http://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/13321373.Maindee_and_Carnegie_libraries_to_close

BBC Wales (18 Jan 2014) Library closure plans scrutinised as council cuts bite, BBC Wales http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-25782844

#carnegieoccupation on Twitter

Recommended websites

Public Libraries News http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/

Voices for the Library http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/

The Library Campaign http://www.librarycampaign.com/

  • #1 written by Concerned Newportonian
    about 11 months ago

    I visited the new (volunteer run) Maindee library recently to take out some books. The librarian was a volunteer who had worked as a librarian at a different library before the closures in Newport. When I asked her about the situation of the public libraries in Newport, she was literally fighting back the tears.

    As a parent who has lived in Newport for over 20 years and used the public libraries frequently, I can only agree with your points.

  • #2 written by Catherine Finch
    about 9 months ago

    Thanks for this – it’s very sad to think that the former librarian felt that she had to volunteer to keep the library open. It’s very Catch-22 and I really sympathise with her predicament.

    But Maindee Library really isn’t a statutory library service anymore, though I appreciate their efforts and determination to keep the library open. Their engagement activities via arts/children events is still important to the community, but it’s not a properly run library service that would meet the statutory requirements outlined in the 1964 PL Act.

    I’m worried that if the community library is reported to be ‘successful’ – it will give the council the excuse to reduce Newport library services further.

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